Summer feasting can be great fun, but it poses a number of challenges for the cook. You may find yourself in an unfamiliar kitchen or even cooking at a park, on the beach, at a campsite in the woods, or in a friend’s backyard. The grill at hand may lack some of the features of your own, and you may have to share it with other cooks. Cookouts often involve making lots of portions and feeding impatient children.
The best way to ensure fast, delicious results despite all these hurdles is to prep and precook your food at home so that all you have to do at your destination is to warm it up and put on the final touches.
Cook chicken, steak, and other proteins sous vide before you leave the house. Allow the bags of food to cool while still sealed, and then pack them into your cooler with ice. To reheat the food, simply unbag it onto a hot grill and sear it quickly. (Our new book, Modernist Cuisine at Home, also reveals some tricks for improvising sous vide setups while tailgating or picnicking.)
Precooking the food sous vide is convenient, and it shortens the wait for those kiddies. More important, the precision of temperature that sous vide cooking offers allows you to safely cook every portion safely and to exactly the degree of doneness you want. Never again will you have to serve rubbery chicken or tough steak just to be certain it is safe to eat.
Eating Safely in the Great Outdoors
The key to safety is knowing how long to cook at a given temperature to achieve full pasteurization. If you are cooking chicken breasts, for example, you can heat them to a core temperature of as little as 55 °C / 131 °F. Once the center of the thickest part hits that target temperature, hold the chicken at that temperature for 40 minutes to pasteurize the meat. That temperature is not as high as many people are used to, and some prefer their chicken closer to medium-well than medium-rare. That’s easy to accommodate: just choose a higher cooking temperature. The greater the core temperature, the shorter the pasteurization time; see the table for some suggested holding times for chicken breasts and thighs.
Whenever you cook food sous vide in advance, it is crucial to chill it soon after cooking and to keep it chilled until you reheat and serve it. The food should never spend more than four hours total in the “danger zone” of 4 °C to 60 °C / 40 °F to 140 °F. So bring plenty of ice if you are going on a long car ride, or if you won’t be grilling for a while. And don’t forget to bring a bottle of hand sanitizer along; even pasteurized food can become unsafe if you touch it with dirty hands.
Capture That Grilled Goodness
Generations of grillers have been trained to fear flare-ups, but that is misplaced. Certainly you don’t want flames charring your food, but most of the flavor from grilling actually comes from fat drippings, which ignite into flames and then travel back to the food as smoke. If you are quickly reheating precooked food, slow-cooking over coals in tin foil packets, or grilling veggies or other low-fat foods, it’s hard to capture much of this characteristic grilled flavor. An easy work-around is to season your meat and veggies with pressure-rendered fat. You can find a recipe at the bottom of the page.
You can use pressure-rendered fat when cooking on gas or charcoal grills, grill pans, or even in tinfoil packets. Just remove the food from the sous vide bag and brush it generously with the fat. Grill meats first, typically for about one minute per side. Then add vegetables and fruit as desired. Leave fruits, such as peaches or pineapple, on the heat long enough that the sugars in them caramelize. Remember, don’t panick when you see small flames flare-up and lick at the food: you want the smoke they generate to carry its flavor onto the food. But do keep a spray bottle on hand in case the flames get too high.
Leave Only Your Footprints…
Remember to never leave a grill, fire, or coals unattended. Spread the coals out and cover them with sand if necessary before leaving. Gather up all the plastic bags and other waste from your meal, and take it with you.